A Palestinian youth holds a Qatari flag during a rally in support of Qatar, at the Qatari-funded Hamad City housing project, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, 9 June 2017.APA images
Hamza Abu Eltarabesh-18 July 2017
The Gaza Strip is often seen as a place apart, cut off from the rest of the world and the rest of Palestine by Israel – with the collusion to varying degrees of Egypt – which appears bent on its isolation.
But while it is true that the passage of people and goods to and from Gaza is severely restricted, the impact of politics has not been similarly constrained.
The latest spat between Qatar and three fellow Gulf Cooperation Council countries – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – plus Egypt, is a perfect illustration.
The confrontation could have a dramatic impact on Gaza if Qatar’s economic standing declines.
In recent years, Qatar has provided an exception to Gaza’s isolation. The importance of Doha to Gaza expanded in 2012, after the exiled Hamas leadership left Damascus, unable to side with President Bashar al-Assad against his opponents in Syria’s civil war.
At the time, the Egyptian revolution and the election of Muhammad Morsi as president might have made that departure from Syria appear a small price to pay. Egypt shares a crossing with Gaza and seemed a natural ally.
Turkey, too, looked like a promising breakthrough for Hamas in Gaza. Its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan is cut from the same Islamist cloth as Hamas.
Turkey became closely connected to Gaza after nearly 600 Turkish citizens participated in a flotilla in 2010 to break the siege.
A NATO member, Turkey had long-standing military, trade and diplomatic relations with Israel. But Israel’s deadly attack on the flotilla caused a deep rift with Ankara.
Relations with Israel have been normalized and the opening to Turkey has since narrowed for Gaza.
Turkey, which in 2011 imposed military sanctions on Israel over the flotilla attack, last year dropped its effortsto pursue criminal prosecutions of the Israeli military officers who planned it.
After moving from the prime ministership to the presidency and seeking to expand his powers, Erdogan survived a military coup attempt a year ago – leaving Turkey largely preoccupied with internal matters.
Of course, Gaza’s connection with Turkey did not cool as much as the relationship with Cairo, which went from close to hostile after the 2013 military coup against Morsi and the installation of Abdulfattah al-Sisi as Egypt’s ruler.
As a result of these regional shifts since 2013, Hamas has found itself with fewer international friends than ever, and only Doha was prepared to offer visible political support.
In the years since, not least after the devastating Israeli assault of 2014, Hamas and two million Palestinians in Gaza have relied disproportionately on Qatari aid.
After Damascus, Doha became the new home for the exiled Hamas leadership under Khaled Meshaal, while Qatari-financed building projects and cash assistance have been vital to the impoverished coastal strip.
It was Qatari money that in January secured three months of fuel for Gaza’s damaged power station.
But that support is under intense pressure. Donald Trump, the US president, paid no attention to Hamas’ attempt at improving relations with the wider world with its revised charter in May.
Hamas remains on the US list of “terrorist” organizations, and Trump even mentioned it in the same breath as Islamic State and other jihadist groups during his recent visit to Saudi Arabia.
A number of Arab governments seized on Trump’s words as an opportunity to step up pressure on Qatar, with which Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have long had strained relations.
They accused Qatar of supporting “terrorism” and of interference in their domestic affairs through the output of media organizations such as Al Jazeera.
Qatar, said Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, had to stop its support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. He argued that Qatar’s policies undermine the Palestinian Authority and Egypt’s leadership.
Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, Qatar’s foreign minister, has marveled at how support for Palestinians had become an accusation thrown at one Arab country by another.
“The US views Hamas as a terror organization. But to the rest of the Arab nations, it is a legitimate resistance movement. We do not support Hamas, we support the Palestinian people,” he said.
Fears for the future
So far, with the deadline for Qatar to agree to the demands imposed by Saudi Arabia and allies long passed, no agreement has been reached.
Away from the choppy regional political interchanges, Qatar’s isolation could have broad repercussions in Gaza.
In June, a Norwegian human rights organization warned that the sanctions imposed on Qatar could adversely affect long-stalled reconstruction in Gaza.
Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, warned that Qatar might be forced to cut crucial funds.
Qatar has been “very important as an investor in Gaza,” Egeland said, including for infrastructure.
Mahmoud Yasin, 44, farms just over an acre of land in Beit Lahiya, and has benefited from a Qatari agricultural project. He is now fearful for the future.
“My farm and other farms in Gaza have been rehabilitated and improved with Qatari assistance. In case these projects are stopped, I don’t know how we can maintain our farms and how many years they can last under the closure and with Israel preventing the entrance of the tools of our trade.”
Mariam, who did not want to provide her full name, shares similar fears. The mother of four – whose husband was executed as a collaborator four years ago – has relied on a Qatari fund for orphans.
An official at Qatar Charity, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Doha supports 5,000 out of 8,000 orphans in Gaza, including children of suspected collaborators and those children who have lost only their father.
“I found no one but Qatar on my side to help my children,” said Mariam. “I hope that the storm affecting Qatar is not reflected in their ability to help us and help Gaza.”
Other areas may also be affected. A number of sports clubs in Gaza receive funding from Qatari sports organizations, Abdulsalam Haniya, a member of the Higher Council for Youth and Sport in Gaza, told The Electronic Intifada. Some may be forced to shut should funding dry up.
Analysts are divided over the potential economic consequences of Qatar’s isolation. Some say Qatar is unlikely to completely cut its support for Gaza and Hamas, while others suggest Doha may be left with little choice.
Abdel Sattar Qassem, a political analyst and professor at An-Najah National University in the occupied West Bank city of Nablus, sees the Saudi move as a part of a greater American-Israeli strategy to neutralize Hamas. He said it could have lasting effects.
“Hamas has one real enemy which is Israel. That’s why the American-Saudi attempt at ending Qatari support for Hamas will not stop.”
Meanwhile, measures by the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, including cutting funding for Gaza’s health system and forcing thousands of public employees in the territory into early retirement, will put Hamas and Gaza in an even tighter vise.
Qatar will no longer be able to serve as a buffer to offset the harsh PA measures.
Talal Okal, a columnist with al-Ayam newspaper, agreed that it would be difficult for Qatar to resume its financial support for Gaza.
“Political and financial support for the Palestinian issue will be affected not only by Qatar, but by the Gulf states and Arab region in general,” Okal said. “Palestinians will be left to face Israel alone.”
But Husam al-Dajani, a political science lecturer at Ummah University, believes Qatar will not completely cut off its support for Gaza, even if aid is temporarily reduced.
If Qatar does cut funding, al-Dajani said, Hamas will be politically isolated in the Arab region. However, he said Hamas maintains good relations with other Muslim countries, especially Iran and Turkey, and is well ensconced in power in Gaza, offering it some insulation.
Unemployment could soar even higher
It is the construction sector that looks set to be hardest hit by any reduction in support. Ibrahim al-Madhoun, a political analyst close to Hamas, said numerous projects may have to be postponed.
“Qatar provides the Gaza Strip with many services and sponsors many construction projects,” he said. “Any reduction of Qatari support will negatively affect these projects.”
Maher al-Tabbaa, a spokesperson for Gaza’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said unemployment, already at record levels, could spike from 42 percent to as high as 60 percent in the event Qatari financed projects were to end.
This would exacerbate poverty and, along with the worsening electricity crisis, cause further damage to the health and well-being of people in Gaza.
This gloomy picture is not shared by all, however. Samir Abu Mudallah, an economics lecturer at Al-Azhar University, said the impact of continued sanctions on Qatar should not unduly affect the wealthy peninsula state, which enjoys the world’s highest per capita GDP.
Qatar’s economy is primarily based on gas exports and even if sanctions continue, Qatar’s economy is in good shape. Doha, if it wishes, could maintain the comparatively modest financing for projects in Gaza, Abu Mudallah said.
But even with continued funding, Gaza is a powder keg as a result of the decade-long Israeli blockade that has pushed youth unemployment to nearly 60 percent, the ongoing electricity crisis and the Palestinian Authority’s pressure.
Suggestions of a new conflagration between Gaza and Israel seem premature, however. “For Hamas, even being involved in a fourth war doesn’t end the current crises,” said Qassem. But no one can foresee what Israel might do.
The news was surprising to Palestinians in Gaza and details of the agreement are still not clear. It may have political, economic and social implications.
Certainly, many Palestinians in Gaza will hope that it might spell the beginning of the end of the blockade they have suffered from for 10 years, and a way out of the potential calamity that the end of Qatari funding could spell.
But antagonistic past relations between Dahlan and Hamas suggest nothing can be taken for granted.
Hamza Abu Eltarabesh is a journalist from Gaza.